If you are participating in our relaxation challenge, you already know the benefits of relaxing your mind and reducing your fear of movements. You know the basics, and now it’s time for some specific training: how to relax your muscles.
Before your stroke, you didn’t need to think much about simple things like reaching for a cup. These movements were automatic. Your arm and shoulder muscles worked together to complete the task without you consciously telling them what to do. But after the stroke, you suddenly need a lot of effort to get your body to do what it once did so naturally. Suddenly, actions that require several muscles working together become challenging.
How can this be? It turns out that a stroke that affects the so-called motor areas of your brain disrupts this automatic process. For every action, many muscles have to coordinate in order to produce smooth and exact movements. And a stroke affects this coordination. Some muscles are activated too much; some aren’t activated enough. This imbalance creates muscle tension when not needed, even in rest. We call this condition spasticity.
This is where relaxation comes in. In order to retrain your movements during rehab, you not only need to strengthen your muscles, but you also need to learn to relax those that have too much tension. Several techniques can help you can do this. One of the most used methods and the one that we teach in our challenge is called progressive muscle relaxation.
Progressive muscle relaxation gives you more control over the tension of the muscles. However, it does more than that. It improves your attention since you have to focus on one specific muscle at a time (which you didn’t need to do in your pre-stroke life). You may also improve your sensation and activation of the muscle by paying so much attention to something you never had to think about before. You basically have to gain conscious control of stroke-damaged automatic processes. And you need this control for your recovery!
So after you learned how to relax your central nervous system by focusing on your breathing, you will now learn how to relax your peripheral nervous system one muscle at a time. Flex and relax!